Series preview: Houston Rockets pit vaunted offense against Utah Jazz's stingy defense

The Rockets ranked second in offensive efficiency, while the Jazz ranked second in defensive efficiency

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

James Harden is the presumptive Kia MVP, having had a phenomenal season in leading the league’s No. 2 offense. Rudy Gobert is the presumptive Kia Defensive Player of the Year, having made a huge impact on that end of the floor for the league’s No. 2 defense upon returning from injury in late January.

The two will meet in the Western Conference semifinals in what will be the best elite-offense-vs.-elite-defense matchup of the postseason thus far. Of course, both the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz have found success on both ends of the floor. In eliminating the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games, the Rockets held the Wolves’ top-five offense to six fewer points per 100 possessions than it scored in the regular season. And in ousting the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games, the Jazz scored almost two more than OKC’s top-10 defense allowed in the regular season.

The Rockets and Jazz are a combined 69-14 since Jan. 24, by far the two best teams in the West over that time. But the regular season series between them was about as lopsided as four games between two good teams could get.

The total point differential (the Rockets outscored the Jazz by 70 points over the four games) was the fifth largest in any season series this season and the largest in any series between playoff teams. And the final meeting (Feb. 26) came in the middle of a 21-2 stretch for Utah (and was the second game of a back-to-back for Houston), so it wasn’t like the Rockets only caught the Jazz before they hit their stride. No team scored more efficiently against the Jazz this season than the Rockets did and Harden was able to get to the free throw line often, even with Gobert on the floor.

But the playoffs are a new season, the Jazz looked strong in the first round (discounting the last 20 minutes of Game 5), and Donovan Mitchell is turning into a star on the playoff stage. But the Rockets have home-court advantage, and they’ve won 23 of their last 24 games at the Toyota Center.

Three quick questions and answers

1. How will the Jazz defend Harden? If Ricky Rubio’s hamstring injury (suffered in Game 6 vs. Oklahoma City) affects his availability, Utah’s options will be limited. Joe Ingles should get the assignment, but the initial defender on the MVP favorite isn’t as important as how the Jazz defend Houston pick-and-rolls as a team. The Rockets will challenge Utah’s desire to keep Gobert near the rim; they forced him to switch onto their guards quite a bit in the regular season. The Jazz will surely mix up their pick-and-roll coverage over the course of the series, and the key for every Utah defender who finds himself on an island with either Harden or Chris Paul is to stay in front of them. If they can’t, the Jazz defense will be scrambling and Houston’s shooters will get better looks than they got in the first round.

2. Who has the advantage on the other end of the floor? The Jazz make the most of what they have offensively. Mitchell gives them juice off the dribble, and they move bodies and the ball. The Rockets will switch most screens to try to deactivate that ball movement, unafraid of whatever mismatches the Jazz might want to exploit. Getting Luc Mbah a Moute back from a dislocated right shoulder at some point in the series would help the Rockets’ defense, but they defended Minnesota pretty well without him. The Rockets had the sixth-ranked defense this season and were particularly good at keeping their opponents away from the free throw line and off the offensive glass.

3. Is it all about how well the Rockets shoot from beyond the arc? Well, yes. But 3-point percentage is critical for both teams. The Rockets ranked seventh in the league in points scored in the restricted area and at the free throw line, but they still took more than half of their shots from 3-point range in the regular season (and 49 percent in the first round). Thus far this season, they’re 51-6 when they’ve made more than 33 percent of their 3-point attempts and 18-12 when they haven’t. The Jazz don’t shoot 3s at nearly the same volume, but still need to capitalize on its catch-and-shoot attempts when they get them. They’re 35-7 when they’ve shot 37 percent or better from 3-point range and 17-29 when they haven’t.

The number to know

8.6 — The Rockets averaged just 8.6 turnovers per 100 possessions against Minnesota, by far the lowest rate in the first round and down from 13.8 per 100 in the regular season. The Rockets ranked second in effective field goal percentage and third in free throw rate this year, and the better they take care of the ball, the more shots at the basket (and the more trips to the line) they’ll get. They didn’t shoot particularly well until Game 5 against the Wolves, but their lack of turnovers kept their offense efficient enough to get through the first round. The Jazz ranked fifth in the regular season in opponent turnover rate, forcing 15.2 per 100 possessions. They forced 17.0 in four games against Houston, but that was about all they did well defensively in the regular season series.

Making the pick

The Jazz impressed in dispatching the Thunder in six games. They have an elite defense and a cohesive offense fueled by a budding star. They will not be an easy out. But the Rockets are a much tougher challenge than what the Jazz saw in the first round, a team that won’t settle for bad shots and will be more disciplined on the other end of the floor. We’ve been waiting all season for a Houston-Golden State matchup in the Western Conference Finals, and the Rockets should hold up their end of the bargain. Rockets in 6.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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